Ann Arbor News - November 16, 1999

"Songwriter strikes a chord with Huron students"

By Cynthia Furlong Reynolds, News Special Writer 11/16/99

Folk singer and songwriter Cliff Eberhardt struck a chord on his guitar, surveyed the 40 students seated on desks and the floor in Classroom 4205 of Huron High School Monday afternoon, and asked, "How many of you write songs?"

Two hands shot up immediately. Another two tentatively followed. "How many of you play an instrument?" 

Three more hands up.

"How many write poetry, journals or fiction?"

A half-dozen hands

"I'm here today because when I was your age I didn't know people could really write songs and earn a living," the musician told the class. "I didn't know how to write songs. I just knew I had to do it. And I had to learn my craft the hard way. I'm here to encourage you, to urge you to explore your creative side."

Eberhardt, 45, was invited to the high school composition class taught by English teacher Ryan Goble to discuss a seldom explored and seldom taught aspect of composition: music and lyrics composition."

"Do you know that there is not one college classroom in the country teaching songwriting?" Eberhardt asked. "You're on your own in the school of hard knocks and you have to teach yourself this form of composition."

Eberhardt began his career at age 15, when he and his brother Geoff began touring as an acoustic duo. He has written songs for Better Midler, played lead guitar for Richie Havens and Melanie, taught in college classrooms and performed advertising jingles promoting products like Coke, Miller Beer and Chevrolet. His is the voice that sang "The heartbeat of America" on televisions and radios across America. In between, he managed to produce five albums.

"I call myself an acoustic musician because I play the acoustic guitar, but others call me a folk singer. I write jazz, blues, pop and folk music. The people who record my songs are probably people your parents listen to," he told his audience with a grin.

"For me, writing music is like throwing a stick in a river. It just flows, and I let it take me where it wants to go," he said, "Creativity is a way of thinking, of connecting two thoughts into one revelation,"

Later, he told Goble, "I worry today that computers and technology have robbed kids of the passion to be creative - and our creative aspects are the best parts of our being. If I've encouraged one student to explore the creative side of life, then I've done something worthwhile."

Eberhardt is one of a succession of professionals in the music industry who will visit Goble's class this year. Goble, who crafted a "So you Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Teacher?" workshop for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, earned his bachelor's degree in English and a master's degree in education from the University of Michigan. His master's thesis focused on the possibilities and reward of integrating pop culture into the education curriculum. At Huron High School he is practicing what he preaches. "I think that it's essential these days to use popular culture to teach kids - especially kids who don't like the written word," Goble said. "I'm teaching these students to be consumers of the written word and of the modes and messages of communication that surround them daily." 

His students use television, music and movies to make connections to the great classical works of literature. "We can look at something like a Calvin & Hobbes comic strip, for example, and see how it refers to Shakespeare. That makes Shakespeare relevant and alive to students living 400 years after he wrote," Goble said.

Huron senior Pete Clark, who has just produced his own recorded album, has a particular interest in Eberhardt. "It's great to hear about how someone else goes through the process," Clark said. "Everyone needs a mentor."

"These days kids don't have as many outlets for creativity as Mr. Eberhardt had when he was our age," senior Kristen Drake said after Monday's class. "Kids are more geared to athletics and computers." 

"There are too many machines making music rather than people," said classmate Erin Morris as she picked up her flute and left for the next class.